Skip to content
Ralph Nader > In the Public Interest > Direct Democratic Systems

All the presidential candi­dates are talking about big government. They want to make it more efficient. Some want to decentralize federal power to the states and a few would use big government to tame big business.

What they all want us to believe is that, if elected, they would use presidential power to serve the people.

But can delegated demo­cratic systems (including the presidency) be respon­sive to the public without the parallel development of direct democratic systems to counteract the awesome entrenchment of special interest groups? This seems to me to be a central ques­tion which sincere candi­dates should feel obliged to ponder.

What are direct demo­cratic systems? They are systems which permit peo­ple to have their problems or grievances directly ad­dressed. They do not in­volve beseeching a legisla­ture of a governor or a president to do it on their behalf, by proxy, so to speak.

There are five proposals for direct democracy which need to become part of the pre-election debate:

1. That the initiative, referendum and recall be adopted by all states and that there be a national initiative instituted. In about 20 states, mostly west of the Mississippi, these turn-of-the-century populist measures have been part of the state constitutions.

Citizen groups are begin­ning to revive the use of these direct democratic rights which permit voters to write their own laws (initiative), repeal meas­ures passed by the legislature (referendum), and call back elected officials be­tween elections (recall).

The People’s Lobby (3456 West Olympic Blvd., Los Angeles, Calif. 90019), a major citizen activator of the initiative, is an informa­tion source on these meas­ures.

2. A federal law to pro­vide citizens with the right (or “standing”) to sue the federal government or offi­cials for illegalities such as the misuse of White House aides and facilities in elec­tion campaigns.

Currently, because of re­cent Supreme Court deci­sions, citizens do not have this right. Only the govern­ment can sue to stop the government’s lawlessness.

That is not only unlikely in many cases — imagine the Attorney General taking the President or a presidential appointee to court —but antidemocratic as well. For the citizens are the last resort of corrective power in a genuine democracy. Open the courtroom door to them.

Give aggrieved citizens the right to initiate a disci­plinary process toward civil servants for corruptive, wasteful, capricious or sup­pressive behavior. Regular non-enforcement of health and safety laws resulting in injury to persons from harmful products, for example, would be grounds for such an action.

Such civil service ac­countability directly to the people would encourage internal changes within the agency or departmental chain of command.

There- is nothing like citi­zens succeeding in securing the suspension, demotion, or expulsion of a govern­ment official to shake up the bureaucracy in the right way.

Permit consumers to file consumer and environ­mental class actions in federal courts against cor­porations who defraud or pollute. Presently, such class actions are very dif­ficult to initiate.

If consumers can initiate legal actions for all consum­ers similarly cheated or harmed by a specific company, prevention of fu­ture abases is more likely to result along with repaying consumers for their dam­ages.

Economic power for consumers is essential to make the corporate world more democratic. The en­couragement of consumer cooperatives — consumer-owned retail businesses —can produce effective bar­gaining power in the mar­ketplace and political power for consumer rights.

This form of private enterprise has great diffi­culty obtaining commercial bank credit. Food co-ops, for example, experience this problem all over the country.

There is pending in Congress a proposal (S.2631, HR 9743) to estab­lish a national consumer cooperative finance institu­tion to extend credit and technical assistance to con­sumer co-ops. Ownership of the institution will gradual­ly shift to the co-ops them­selves.

This bill is needed badly to balance the extensive government aid to profit-making, investor-owned corporations. (For more information, write to Sen. Thomas McIntyre of New Hampshire or Rep. F.J. St. Germain of Rhode Island.